The Balaam inscription from Deir ‘Alla
Michael B. from the U.S. inquired about a fascinating archaeological discovery, an inscription which refers to the biblical figure Balaam. This is the man whose donkey famously spoke when “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” (Numbers 22:28), at the time the young nation of Israel was nearly ready to enter the Promised Land. Michael’s question is followed by a response from Keaton Halley of CMI–US.
In regards to the Exodus I thought that the Deir Alla inscription of “Balaam son of Beor” would carry some significance not just as additional Biblical archeology evidence but also as proof of the Exodus and possible dating aid however all searches of your site for this plaster inscription have turned up nothing. My apologies if I have overlooked the obvious, it has been known to happen. Thank you in advance.
Your Brother in Christ,
I believe you are correct that we have not previously published anything about this find, which was discovered back in 1967.
As you probably know, Balaam, son of Beor, was the ‘pagan prophet’ whose story is told in Numbers 22–24, when the Israelites were approaching the end of their 40 years of wilderness wandering. Balak, king of Moab, summoned Balaam to curse Israel, but God prevented this. Unfortunately, Balaam still found a way to cause trouble. His advice led Israel to consort with foreign women and thereby align themselves with the false god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25, and see the explanation in Numbers 31:16).
Balaam’s death is also recorded in Numbers 31:8, and he is briefly mentioned in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Micah, Nehemiah, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Thus, finding archaeological confirmation of the infamous biblical character would be quite significant.
The inscription you refer to was found at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan. The site is 8 km east of the Jordan river, near the place where the biblical Jabbok River (modern day Zarka River) enters the Jordan Valley. Seventh-Day Adventist scholar William H. Shea has suggested this site should be identified as biblical Pethor,1 Balaam’s hometown according to Numbers 22:5 and Deuteronomy 23:4. But it is more likely that Pethor was closer to the Euphrates (i.e., further northeast), given its association with “the River” (Numbers 22:5, likely the Euphrates) and Aram-Naharaim (Deuteronomy 23:4). Also, Balaam says he was brought “From Aram” and “from the eastern mountains” to Moab (Numbers 23:7), whereas Deir ‘Alla is only a little to the north, and not in Aram.2 Still, Deir ‘Alla is in the general vicinity (east of the Jordan) in which the Bible portrays Balaam as being active.
I do think this find lends some small amount of support to the biblical account of the Exodus and wilderness sojourn, although it is no slam dunk, since the inscription is dated to around 800 BC, long after Balaam would have lived. The biblical date for the Exodus is roughly 1450 BC (1 Kings 6:1). The Israelites’ encounter with Balaam would have taken place shortly before 1400 BC. Thus, even though the inscription demonstrates that there were traditions about this prophet Balaam that are very ancient, it does not prove that these traditions accurately describe events hundreds of years earlier. The evidence is consistent with the Bible, but not as powerful as it would be if we had found evidence of Balaam dated to his own time.
That said, however, there are a number of interesting connections between the Deir ‘Alla inscription and the biblical account, which do help to reinforce the Bible’s accuracy. First, the inscription refers to Balaam as the “son of Beor”, so there is no question it is referring to the same person. It also calls him a seer, in keeping with Balaam’s description of himself in Numbers 24. The Bible also tells us that the term “seer” (i.e., one who sees) was the former term for a prophet (1 Samuel 9:9). Of course, the biblical record includes some irony here, since Balaam’s own donkey was able to see better than he could, apart from God’s help.
The Deir ‘Alla inscription is not Jewish in composition. It conveys a polytheistic worldview but uses terminology of the gods that is also used of the true God in biblical texts from this time period—names like El, Elohim, and Shaddai. Also, the inscription says that “the gods came to him at night”, similar to the biblical text: “And God came to Balaam at night” (Numbers 22:20).
It is significant that the inscription itself and its archaeological context suggest that Deir ‘Alla was not controlled by Israel at this time.3 As mentioned, the inscription has been dated to around 800 BC. If the dating is correct, this is consistent with the following passage which indicates that Israel had lost much of its territory east of the Jordan not long before this text was produced.
In those days the Lord began to cut off parts of Israel. Hazael defeated them throughout the territory of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the Valley of the Arnon, that is, Gilead and Bashan. (2 Kings 10:32–33)
Although the extrabiblical evidence for Balaam probably won’t by itself convince a skeptic that the Exodus really happened, it is one more piece of evidence that does support the Bible. I think it can be included in a cumulative case for the truth of the Exodus, and the truth of the Bible’s history in general.